Racist Narratives about Covid-19

Racial and xenophobic rhetoric and Covid-19.

” The White House President Trump Participates in a Roundtable” by The White House is in the Public Domain, CC0

In an interview prior to the Tulsa event on Fox News Channel last Saturday, Trump noted the following:

When asked about the risks of such a gathering, the commander in chief said there was only a minimal chance of becoming sick, adding that the country cannot remain closed forever.

“There is a risk but there’s also something of a tiny, little percentage have a problem with it,” Trump explained. “You build up immunity and we have to get our country back. We can’t keep doing this. We could stay out for five years. I’m sure that would make China very happy… we have to get going. We have to get our country back.”

At the rally itself he ramped up the anti-China rhetoric:

COVID-19, the novel disease caused by the coronavirus, is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, and the term “kung flu,” appears to refer to the Chinese martial art of kung fu.

“It’s a disease, without question, has more names than any disease in history,” Trump said at the rally.

“I can name – Kung flu. I can name 19 different versions of names. Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu. What difference. I think we have 19 or 20 versions of the name.”

He again used the phrase “kung flu” to the roar of his audience in a rally in Arizona.

President Trump again referred to the novel coronavirus as “kung flu,” eliciting laughter and wild cheers from a young crowd in Arizona on Tuesday.

Trump was listing the different names he has heard for the virus, which has killed at least 119,000 Americans, during a speech for the student Republican group Turning Point Action.

“Wuhan. Wuhan was catching on, coronavirus, kung flu,” he said, repeating it as the crowd roared. “I could give you many, many names. Some people call it the Chinese flu, the China flu, they call it the China.”

The cheers really are stomach-churning.

(And note, to answer his query in the video, COVID-19 stands for “Coronavirus disease 2019” and so the 19 is, like, you know, the year the disease started).

Today Kellyanne Conway defended the term “kung flu” to the press, despite having called it “highly offensive” back in March.

So, on top of xenophobia language, we get a side-helping of Orwellian doublespeak.

And the cherry on that sundae is that it is all designed to deflect responsibility in regards to how poorly the Trump administration has been handling the pandemic.

This all sadly resonates with something I read over the weekend, a two-year-old write-up about a book on fascist politics (How Fascism Works review: a vital read for a nation under Trump):

The assertion that immigrants are responsible for social ills that threaten to ruin a once-great nation, for example, might represent run-of-the-mill racism or xenophobia. His book’s subtitle is after all “The Politics of Us and Them”. But the idea is also drawn from a blueprint shared by the most robust fascistic regimes in recent history.

And while in this case, Trump isn’t talking about immigrants, he is very much deploying xenophobia and the politics of us v. them. It is divisive by design and derisive in its usage.

A more directly immigrant-linked state was made by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who recently directly linked spread of Covid-19 to “overwhelmingly Hispanic” agriculture workers.

And for another racist narrative about Covid-19, we can go to Ohio a little over a week ago: GOP Ohio state senator wonders if ‘colored’ people get COVID-19 from not washing their hands as much.

During a discussion with Angela Dawson, director of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health, Sen. Steve Huffman, a doctor from Tipp City north of Dayton, said, “I understand that African Americans have a higher incidence of prior conditions and that makes them more susceptible to COVID, but does not make them more susceptible just to get COVID.

“We know it’s twice as often, correct? Could it just be that African Americans – the colored population — do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear a mask? Or do not socially distance themselves? Could that just be maybe the explanation of why there’s a higher incidence?”

The trope of the dirty foreigner/person of color carrying disease (something that Trump has done more than once in the past) is a standard racist canard. It shouldn’t be acceptable in American politics, and it is utterly disheartening that it can still find both willing purveyors and receptive audiences.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. CSK says:

    “…they call it the China.”

    What in hell is that supposed to mean? And people cheer this babbling idiot?

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Unfortunately, same sh$t different day.

  3. DrDaveT says:

    “I understand that African Americans have a higher incidence of prior conditions and that makes them more susceptible to COVID, but does not make them more susceptible just to get COVID.

    Apparently Dr. Huffman is unaware that African-Americans have a prior condition that makes them more susceptible to having to be exposed to other people, even during a pandemic.

  4. Jax says:

    I think we’re just gonna have to go with Teve’s standard of “shitty people have shitty values” and drink alcohol until the election.

  5. Scott F. says:

    Here’s how I’ve been smacked by my white privilege as my blinders have fallen off. I thought the dog-whistles were necessary.

    The systemic racism has always been there. I’ve always understood that. But, I thought, for a politician to maintain any kind of viability, they had keep themselves to signaling words and symbolism that clued in the like-minded without giving away the game to the decent folk. I thought that a public figure who openly expressed their racist views would be shunned by nearly everyone, so it was just too dangerous to go there.

    But, Trump has proven me wrong. He’s not being subtle about his racism at all and there is an uncomfortably large swath of the US public that is not appalled by it and some other cohort that rather loves him for coming out and saying it. I think they are grateful they been freed from having to hold their tongues around people they don’t know or colleagues from work.

    I’m almost grateful to Trump for letting me see what I was blind to. And I’m sickened by what he’s revealed about too many in this country. But, I’m hopeful that the numbers favor the decent folk. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, “Make Racists Afraid Again” and I think that’s really important.

    Trump and Trumpism has to be repudiated.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    This was at a mega church.
    Listen to the crowd roaring after he says Kung Flu

    Expecting modern American Evangelicals to behave as Christians in the sense of decency and charity is like expecting modern American Republicans to be conservative in any dictionary sense of the word.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott F.: The explanation for dog whistle racism was always that explicit racism would drive away the suburban “soccer moms”. Which it appears to in fact be doing.

  8. mattbernius says:

    Countdown to @Tyrell saying that none of this is racist–it’s just good ol’ innocent funnin’.

  9. Scott F. says:

    @gVOR08: I’ve always thought the thinking was explicit racism would drive away a larger voting bloc than suburban “soccer moms” which would include at least a handful of mainstream Republican males.

    And I’ve also thought that “drive away” meant driven to the extent that people would forego other interests (such as tax cuts and de-regulation) due to their unwillingness to be associated with something as repugnant as white supremacy.

    With Trump being as blatant as he has been, if he doesn’t go down in defeat in November by a wider margin than appears likely now, then my thinking was naive. And the US as a whole is much more tolerant of bigotry than I wanted to believe.

  10. @Scott F.: I concur with this sentiment: Trump has revealed that we have not made nearly as much progress on race that I thought we had.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: White supremacy–an idea glommed on to by people who haven’t accomplished anything in their lives and are desperately looking for something to prop up their egos. Also used by people who don’t have the guts to admit they’ve never amounted to anything and never will.

  12. mattbernius says:

    @Scott F.:

    With Trump being as blatant as he has been, if he doesn’t go down in defeat in November by a wider margin than appears likely now, then my thinking was naive. And the US as a whole is much more tolerant of bigotry than I wanted to believe.

    I have really, really bad news for you. Though to be fair, I think part of the issue is that there is an entire party mechanism, built across many States, that will artificially depress Democratic votes.

    Unfortunately, that machinery is very much in service of maintaining a current racial status quo (like most aspects of government at all levels).